Our industry spent decades convincing organizations that UX research was worthwhile. Why would we ever dare to skip it?
Let’s reframe that question. We shouldn’t skip research. Projects that don’t rely on some sort of research insights are very unlikely to succeed.
A better question could be: When is the right time to do research? Sometimes it’s worth delaying research until later, rearranging a project, or playing catch up. While this might feel like skipping research, it doesn’t need to. Every project should eventually rely on research insights (but that doesn’t mean research is the first step in every project).
This is a new muscle to develop for many designers. Unless your organization has a staffed research team, designers are constantly context-switching between design and research.
Knowing when to delay or reposition research is a skill. You might get it wrong before you get it right. As with any skill, surround yourself with mentors and teammates who can give you candid feedback and help you develop yourself.
If you’re considering skipping research, it’s worth reflecting on why you want to do it. A variety of constraints and obstacles can arise in a project. Everything you do should be to help a project achieve its outcomes. If your desire to skip research isn’t to help the project, there may be other unnecessary pressures at play.
On the latest episode of UX Chats, Ioana Teleanu walked through an important moment of reflection when considering whether or not to skip research:
Sit down and do this introspection exercise and try to understand “Why do I want to skip research? Do I feel super pressured to deliver designs fast? Do I not have the support that I need in my company? Do I feel that I don’t have the resources—the money, the time? Do I feel that I already know the answers or do I think my solution is perfect?
It could be the problem that sits at the core of this dilemma can be addressed in a different way. You might be avoiding research because there’s something else pressuring you.
While external pressures, feelings of inadequacy, or budget might hinder your research efforts, they’re not good reasons to skip research altogether. Instead, consider how you might resolve these issues with your team (or yourself) before moving forward.
So when can I “skip” user research?
Research is a de-risking exercise. It should decrease the likelihood of failure and increase confidence in the next right decision. If research is ever skipped entirely (or for long periods of time) the likelihood of failure skyrockets.
Here are some situations when adjusting your research investments might be appropriate.
Are existing sources enough?
Depending on your industry, secondary research sources can provide a wealth of knowledge (and potentially be much more insightful than your own small-scale research studies). Surveys and polls like Forrester, Gallup, and others can supply you with larger sample sizes than most designers could gather on their own.
Don’t forget to pursue quantitative resources, as well. If your product has built analytics or reporting, consider whether you can answer your research questions with these solutions (spoiler alert: quantitative analytics are a form of user research, too—anything that teaches you about user behaviors!).
Do you already have enough research to move forward?
Depending on the scope of your research, it can often carry you through several versions of a project. I usually can’t incorporate everything I learn from my research sessions into the first release of a project. Instead, the research helps me paint a vision of the future that is then broken down into incremental chunks of value. It may take several phases of the same project to finally utilize all the knowledge that emerged from the research.
Something similar can happen with past research projects. Just because research doesn’t always yield immediate design solutions doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Companies, markets, and teams change. Research that seems inconsequential one month may quickly become indispensable. If a project is ever delayed or paused, thoughtfully document this research to revive it again later. This is one of the many reasons to maintain an active research repository.
Other great sources of information are the various departments within your company. Once you’ve narrowed in on a research question, it’s worth finding out what your team has already learned about this topic. Other teams may have invested in research that already answers your question. If this happens frequently, try collaborating in a shared research repository to more easily discover and use each other’s research.
If you’re seeking confidence in a specific problem (or solution), consider whether you can already do this with existing resources.
Can you do research later?
Despite what you may have learned in design school, research doesn’t always come at the beginning of a project.
If your design solution is low risk and low cost, you may learn faster by dropping it into the product and testing the real thing. For example, the effects of a new icon in a low-traffic area of the product might be more easily observed with an A/B test or a session recording tool than a full-on research effort.
It might also be worth delaying research if right now you don’t have the time or resources to do it right. Some researchers even feel that you should “do research right or don’t do it at all.” Will you have access to more time, resources, or budget in the near future? It might be worth treading water until you’re freed up to do research the way you want to. Limited research can bias and harm a project with poor, misleading research. For example: if a teammate goes on extended leave that puts more responsibility on you, consider whether you have the time to do research right. Holding off for a few weeks could yield better results.
Ask yourself whether you’re the bottleneck in a project. Which would be better: doing the research to develop confidence in the solution, or releasing out a quick solution to learn from? You could consider it a prototype, early access, or a beta solution that you’re able to continue changing. This isn’t viable if you’re continually behind and never able to get ahead enough to do research. Consider it as a useful tool to relieve some of the pressure on your work.
I’ve often used this technique to try and buy myself some time. For example, I love sketching or co-designing with an engineer until we have a shared vision of the solution. Once they have a good enough idea of what an early version might look like, they can start building. I can begin researching and validating while they build a proof-of-concept. Both parties need to be willing to throw the early version away, but it can provide a decent head start as the insights roll in.
Lastly, consider if you’re able to invest in a more continuous research cycle. The context-switch between design and research will feel much easier if you have a steady drip of insights coming in. Can you invest in automated surveys, regular scheduling, or other insights? If you can, you may find yourself better able to balance your research and design needs.
So much of your research awareness is dependent on your skills, resources, product, and organization. There’s not a simple formula or framework to determine when research is necessary. It’s worth reflecting on and analyzing each of your projects. Should you have done more or less research? Could it have come earlier or later in the process?
As you develop that sixth sense, let go of some of the more rigid design frameworks we’ve consumed in pursuit of a more fluid practice. Do what’s best for your customer, your company, and for you as a designer.
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Part of being an efficient designer is knowing when to put on your "research hat" … and when to take it off. Let's consider a few more situations where it actually might be better to skip research.